Type of Government
The Novgorod Republic emerged out of the disarray of Kievan Rus’, early in the twelfth century, but this trading city’s commerce-driven economy fostered an independence of mind and aversion to autocracy that led to a novel form of a feudal republic. Its veche, or an assembly of all free males, selected a prince to govern Novgorod, and similar bodies met in smaller cities of the republic to choose their local executives.
The city that gave its name to the Novgorod Republic is one of the oldest urban settlements in the Slavic realm. Its strategic location on the Volkhov River made it an important link on a trade route that connected Scandinavia to the riches of the Byzantine Empire to the south. As Kiev emerged as the center of power in the region, Novgorod often took sides and at times harbored princes from the Kievan Rus’ Rurikid line during periods of dynastic crisis. When victorious, those Kievan Rus’ princes granted Novgorod increasing privileges regarding commerce and self-government, which led to its move for complete sovereignty. In 1136 the elite landowning class of Novgorod demanded and won the right to name their own prince, instead of accepting one of the heirs of the grand prince in Kiev.
The highest political authority in the Novgorod Republic was the veche, which was open to all free male residents in the realm, but usually only included those within hearing distance of the peals from its great bell. Theoretically, the veche bell could be rung by any free man wishing to summon an assembly. Its participants elected the posadnik (mayor) and tysyatsky (militia commander). As Novgorod began to assert itself, the veche voted to restrict the prince’s powers by means of an actual contract. The prince was allowed no more than fifty men in his military retinue, was bound by oath to respect all Novgorod laws, and was prohibited from owning land or engaging in commerce.
The veche was dominated by the boyars (the largest landowners) and voted on all issues relating to Novgorod, including matters of war, alliances, and commercial treaties with other nations. It also elected the posadniks from among its own ranks, and over time the duties of the senior posadnik came to include responsibility for the militia; meanwhile, the tysyatsky assumed the duties of a chief constable. In Novgorod the archbishop served as head of the executive branch. He oversaw the republican treasury, conducted foreign relations, and had the power to prosecute offenses.
In 1291 Novgorod’s local authorities enacted a series of reforms that firmly established the city as the center of an independent republic. A supreme council was created, called the council of lords. Its members were the prince’s representative, Novgorod’s archbishop, and several posadniks and tysyatskis. Over the course of the next two centuries, the council of lords grew in number to about fifty, but its actual workings remain undocumented and, therefore, lost to history. Its main function was likely the quiet resolution of disputes that occurred between one or more economic factions or families. That same year, in 1291, Novgorod was reorganized into five boroughs, each of which had its own veche and posadnik. The outer regions of Novgorod were similarly organized into fifths, using the Russian term for a quintile, pyatiny. These stretched to the north and west and included Ladoga, Oreshek, Pskov, Staraya Russa, and Torzhok.
Political Parties and Factions
Novgorod’s political power was embedded in the boyar class, the largest landowners of the empire and from whom the posadniks and tysyatskis were chosen. Until 1236 the princes of Novgorod were from the Rurikid line, but that year the veche voted to invite Alexander Nevsky (c. 1220–1263) to rule and lead a military effort to repel a twin threat from the Scandinavians and the Germans. Nevsky was descended from the princely line that ruled Vladimir, another city of Kievan Rus’.
In 1240 the nineteen-year-old Nevsky beat back the Swedish army. Two years later, he defeated the German Teutonic Knights in one of Europe’s most legendarily uneven conflicts. In the Battle of Lake Peipus, Nevsky’s humble foot soldiers were victorious over impressively armored knights on horseback. Considered one of the greatest heroes of Russian history, Nevsky strengthened the Novgorod Republic via shrewd foreign policy deals both with the Scandinavians and with the Mongols from the east, who had decimated much of what remained of Kievan Rus’ by then.
The Novgorod Republic came to an end when it involved itself in family succession issues among the princes of Moscow, which had emerged as a strong new urban center in medieval Russia by 1400. A series of armed clashes beginning in 1456 forced Novgorod authorities to give up some of their sovereign powers to Moscow, and when Novgorod attempted to ally with a growing political force on its other side, Lithuania-Poland, it was crushed at the battle of Shelon in 1471. Its period of autonomy ended forever in 1478, when Ivan III Vasilyevich (1440–1505), the grand prince of Moscow, ordered the veche bell to be removed.
The complicated landholding system that the boyars of the Novgorod Republic used to maintain power endured after 1478, and within twenty years was codified across Russia as a land-lease system that severely restricted the serfs (peasants) who worked the land. Serfdom, often compared to slavery for the restrictions it placed on the freedom of movement and earning potential of the agricultural workers, ended in 1861. The social unrest that occurred after this was a direct cause of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. This became the world’s first communist state, Soviet Russia, and the root vet in “Soviet” links back to the term veche.
Dvornik, Francis. The Slavs in European History and Civilization. Piscataway, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1992.
Moss, Walter G. A History of Russia. 2 vols. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1997.
Thompson, Michael. W. Novgorod the Great. London: Evelyn, Adams, and Mackay, 1967.